Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead is a two part story from the fourth season of the revival of Doctor Who, starring David Tennant and introducing Alex Kingston as River Song.
Silence in the Library: The Doctor and Donna arrive at the planet-sized Library, to find it completely empty, having been a victim of a mysterious disaster a century prior in which 4000+ people suddenly vanished. They run into a team of archeologists who are the first to return to the library since then. The team is organized by the unpleasant Mr. Lux, whose family built the Library, and led by Professor River Song, a mysterious woman who knows the Doctor very closely in his personal future, and even has his future sonic screwdriver. The Doctor realizes that the Library has become infested with Vashta Narada, a spore-like flesh eating life form that hides in (and resembles) deep shadows. Members of the archeological team begin to die, although there consciousnesses can remain alive for a short time via special communicators that they use that have a neural link. The Vashta Nerada animate the space suits of their victims and use them to chase other potential victims around. Meanwhile, the library seems to be imagined by a little girl who apparently has mental problems. However, when her dad is not listening, her psychiatrist, Dr. Moon, tells her that the Library is real and that people inside of it are in danger, and that she must save them. Back in the Libary, the Doctor tries to teleport Donna back to the Tardis for safety, but something goes wrong. The Doctor discovers that the same fate has befallen her as did the other 4000 inhabitants of the Library just as the animated Vashta Nerada suits start to corner them.
Forest of the Dead: The Doctor, River and the other survivors keep on the run while the Doctor tries to find out what happened to Donna. Donna, meanwhile, finds herself being treated for mental issues by Dr. Moon. She recovers, gets married to a fellow patient, and has two children before she’s a mysterious woman contacts her and helps her to realize that she is in a simulated environment, where her children are not real. The woman is Miss Evangelista, the first victim of the Vashta Nerada from the archeological team, whose consciousness has been absorbed by the planet’s computer via the neural relay after she died. Donna and the other Library inhabitants have been teleported away from danger by the main computer, and are being held within its databank until they can be reactivated safely (ie after the Vashta Nerada are no longer a threat). The Doctor and the others go to the center of the planet where the main computer core is kept. There, the Doctor discovers that the computer is actually the little girl – a member of Mr. Lux’s family who was dying. A virtual world was created for her, with access to all of the books in the universe. It was she that saved the inhabitants of the Library by teleporting them away, but the strain has begun to overwhelm her. The Doctor is able to talk down the Vashta Nerada, but the girl / computer begins to self destruct. The Doctor figures out a way to sacrifice himself to prevent this, but River intervenes and dies in his place. The Doctor realizes that his future self gave River the sonic screwdriver so that he could secretly place a neural link in her presence, which the Doctor uses to save River by downloading her into the now stable virtual reality environment.
Comments: I’ve been amazed to realize lately that there are people out there who don’t like Silence in the Library and its follow-up, which is a fact that I find mystifying. I think it’s a fantastic two-parter and a highlight of a generally strong fourth season. The plot is a rich puzzle, manages its different elements very deftly (far more deftly than I was able to describe them in the paragraphs above). I was engaged and fascinated trying to sort through all that is going on with the Vashta Nerada, the little girl and her therapist, the missing visitors to the library, and of course the introduction or River Song, but it all comes together in a very satisfying way at the end.
There are weaknesses, of course. The main one is that though the idea of the Vashta Nerada is quite terrifying, they don’t seem very clever, or at least not consistently so. This vast swarm of micro-organisms (that is at one point shown cruising down a corridor at a good clip, blotting out the lights) that abruptly devours people without warning, decide that most of the time, it’d be in their best interests to lumber around in human space suits for no reason but to give the heroes someone slower to run away from.
Aside from that, and from the slightly cheesy skeletons, it’s great fun. At the start, one has no idea how to make sense of the scenes with the little girl and Dr. Moon. That sort of mysterious disconnection is a bit of a highlight of Steven Moffat’s contributions to Doctor Who as a writer, and I love it. In the same way that we see in other stories of his, such as The Empty Child and Blink, he is able to create what on the surface are completely random (and unsettling) events that seem completely inexplicable, and then peel back the layers until we gain full (or full enough) understanding.
Forest of the Dead is a very good Donna story, allowing her to have her funny moments (“I’ve been dieting!” at her realization that her body is a virtual one) while at the same time pushing the character into new dramatic areas. Her plight at realizing the truth behind her environment, her world, and especially her children is very chilling and very human. As a parent myself I can completely sympathize with her inability to just “reject” her children even when she discovers their non-existence. Catherine Tate’s performance at this, and the aftermath of it all for her, is strong and compelling.
The story, especially Forest of the Dead, has some fun with some quite “meta” moments. Little Charlotte literally watches Doctor Who on television, cowering behind the sofa cushions at the scary moments. The entire section with Donna in the virtual world has a lot of fun with cinematic language (quite a while before Inception did the same thing). And the Doctor challenging the Vashta Nerada to “look him up” in all of the books in the Library is sort of like inviting them to watch the entire TV series.
Out of everything, the biggest legacy of the episode is the introduction (and farewell, all in one story) of River Song, entering the scene with her trademark, “Hello, sweetie.” I’ve heard that she was originally introduced just because it helped the plot if the archeologists would trust the Doctor right away, but that in writing that Moffat decided it’d be more interesting if one of the team members knew the Doctor rather than the other way around. River is a great character here, lots of fun and full of surprises for the Doctor. She is also very likeable, which isn’t always the case later on (perhaps it’s a sign of the characters maturity). Her death at the end of the story is very impacting, and the way she is “saved” is an unexpected triumph. With the promises that she gives of the Doctor’s future, and the way that the Doctor begins to embrace those promises here, it’s hard to argue that there is any other encounter with a guest character that has ever had such a profound effect on our hero.
The rest of the character work is also good: Little Charlotte, Donna’s husband Lee, Miss Evangelista, and especially Dr. Moon, work well. Colin Salmon, who plays Dr. Moon, especially does a great job, carrying the character’s ambiguity – is a good guy or a bad guy? – very well. I also like the writing for Mr. Lux – a character we assume is the usual pig-headed bureaucrat we’ve seen on Doctor Who dozens of times, but by the end we discover is actually a man deeply committed to family. The rest of the archeological team are all pretty standard, but that works fine, as it’s their “everyman” quality that makes them sympathetic.
There are lots and lots of great dialogue here…
• When they first arrive, the Doctor describes their location to Donna.
Doctor: The Library. So big it doesn’t need a name. Just a great big “The”.
• A little later, when the Doctor clues in to what’s going on
Doctor: Ha! I’m thick! Look at me, I’m old and thick! Head’s too full of stuff! I need a bigger head!
• About the Vashta Nerada, (and reflecting the writer’s ability to take simple things and make them terrifying), the Doctor says
Doctor: Almost every species in the universe has an irrational fear of the dark, but they’re wrong, because it’s not irrational. It’s Vashta Nerada.
• A chilling and exciting moment with Dr. Moon and little Charlotte toward the end of Part 1:
Dr. Moon: Now, listen, this is important. There’s the real world, and there’s the world of nightmares. That’s right, isn’t it? You understand that.
Charlotte: Yes, I know, Dr. Moon.
Dr. Moon: What I want you to remember is this, and I know it’s hard. The real world is a lie, and your nightmares are real. The library is real. There are people trapped in there, people who need to be saved. The shadows are moving again. Those people are depending on you. Only you can save them. Only you.
• More on the Vashta Nerada
Doctor: Normally they live on roadkill, but sometimes people go missing. Not everyone comes back out of the dark.
River Song: Every shadow?
Doctor: No. But any shadow.
River Song: So what do we do?
Doctor: Daleks – aim for the eyestalk. Sontarans, back of the neck. Vashta Nerada – run. Just run.
• When the Vashta Nerada latch onto Anita…
River Song: Just keep it together, 0kay?
Anita: Keeping it together. I’m only crying. I’m about to die, it’s not an overreaction.
and then later
Doctor: Can I get you anything?
Anita: An old age would be nice. Anything you can do?
Doctor: I’m all over it.
Anita: Doctor, when we first met you, you didn’t trust Professor Song, and then she whispered a word in your ear, and you did. My life so far…I could do with a word like that. What did she say? (Pause) Give a dead girl a break, your secrets are safe with me.
• Miss Evangelista, distorted inside the virtual world, says insightfully…
Miss Evangelista: I have the two qualities you require to see absolute truth. I am brilliant…and unloved.
• The Doctor and River as they talk through his final plan to save the Library…
River Song: What do we do?
Doctor: Easy! We’ll beam all the people out in the data core! The computer will reset and stop the countdown. Difficult – Charlotte doesn’t have memory space left to make the transfer. Easy! I’ll hook myself up to the computer, she can borrow my memory space!
River Song: Difficult! It’ll kill you stone dead!
Doctor: Yeahh, it’s easy to criticize.
River Song: You’ll burn out both your hearts and don’t think you’ll regenerate!
Doctor: I’ll try my hardest not to die, honestly, it’s my main thing.
River Song: Doctor–!
Doctor: I’m right! This will work. Shut up! Now listen, you and Lux, you’re going back up to the main library, try to empty any other data cells you can find for maximum download, and before you say anything else, Professor, can I just mention in passing as you’re here, shut up!
River Song: Hh! I hate you sometimes!
Doctor: I know!
• The Doctor scares off the Vashta Nerada (it’s lucky for him that they know how to read).
Doctor: Don’t play games with me! You just killed someone I liked, that is not a safe place to stand! I’m the Doctor and you’re in the biggest library in the universe. Look me up.
• The farewell scene between the Doctor and River is very moving, with David Tennant and especially Alex Kingston doing an excellent job.
Doctor: Oh, no no no no, come on, what are you doing? That’s my job.
River Song: Oh and I’m not allowed to have a career, I suppose?
Doctor: Why am I handcuff–why do you even have handcuffs?
River Song: Spoilers.
and a moment later
River: Funny thing is, this means you’ve always known how I was going to die. All the time we’ve been together, you knew I was coming here. The last time I saw you – the real you, the future you, I mean – you turned up on my doorstep with a new haircut and a suit. You took me to Deryllium, to see the Singing Towers. What a night that was. The Towers sang, and you cried. You wouldn’t tell me why, but I suppose you knew it was time, my time. Time to come to the library. You even gave me your screwdriver, that should have been a clue. There’s nothing you can do.
Doctor: You can let me do this!
River: If you die here it’ll mean I’ve never met you.
Doctor: Time can be rewritten!
River: Not those times! Not one line, don’t you dare! It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s not over for you. You’ll see me again. You and me. Time and space. You watch us run.
Doctor: River, you know my name. You whispered my name in my ear. There’s only reason I would ever tell anyone my name. There’s only one time I could.
River: Hush now. Spoilers.
• Afterwards, as Donna and the Doctor reconnect over what has happened…
Donna: I made up the perfect man. Gorgeous, adores me, and hardly ever speak a word. what does that say about me?
Doctor: Everything. Sorry, did I say “everything”? I meant to say “nothing”. I was aiming at “nothing”. I accidentally said “everything”.
Donna: What about you? You all right?
Doctor: I’m always all right.
Donna: Is all right special Time-Lord code for “really not all right at all”?
Donna: Because I’m all right too.
• This is the first episode of Doctor Who that I know of that ends with a voice over / poem. In this case, it starts just as the Doctor comes to realization that River can be saved.
River Song (voice over): When you run with the Doctor, it feels like it will never end, but however hard you try, you can’t run forever. Everybody knows that everybody dies, and nobody knows it like the Doctor. But I do think that all the skies of all the worlds might just turn dark if he ever, for one moment, accepts it.
and then, as the Doctor begins to embrace his future and opens the Tardis the snap of his fingers…
River Song (voice over): Somedays are special. Somedays are so, so blessed. Somedays nobody dies at all. Now and then, every once in a very long while, every day in a million days when the wind stands fair and the Doctor comes to call, everybody lives.
Things to watch out for:
I love Steven Moffat, but he does enjoy using the a lot of similar ideas in his stories. The Doctor’s scaring off the Vashta Nerada foreshadows something very similar that happens in The Eleventh Hour. The Vashta Nerada using the remnant of their victim’s consciousnesses to communicate is something the Weeping Angels do in a different way in Time of Angels. The “squareness gun” that River uses is just like the sonic blaster used by Jack Harkness in The Doctor Dances (actually, if the internet is to be believed, Moffat’s speculates it may be the same gun, picked up from the Tardis by River in the future). There also references to how things are different in the 51st Century, “Spoilers”, the Crash of the Byzantium (from The Time of Angels), “Everybody lives,” and others that appear elsewhere in the series in the past and the future.
Also, this wasn’t a Moffat episode, but the “ghosting” with Miss Evangelista is similar to what happens with Astrid Peth in Voyage of the Damned.
River says, “I lied. I’m always lying,” which is something that become very true and very important to the character in the future.
When River realizes that the Doctor doesn’t know who she is, it’s a devastating and painful moment for her, that she anticipates in conversation in Season Six’s The Impossible Astronaut.
There are pictures on the wall in Charlotte’s home of a blond girl and a wolf that may be a reference to Rose Tyler and Bad Wolf.
Making sense of it all (Warning: blatant spoilers for the rest of the series):
I don’t know if Moffat had any indication that he would be taking over as the show’s lead producer in a couple of years after this story, but either way he did an excellent job here in setting up River’s relationship with the Doctor, and also foreshadowing the kind of man the Doctor will become under Moffat’s tenure as showrunner. River says this about the Doctor to Anita:
River Song: Yes, the Doctor is here. He came when I called, just like he always does. But not my Doctor. Now my Doctor, I’ve seen whole armies turn and run away, and he’d just swagger off back to his Tardis and open the doors with a snap of his fingers. The Doctor in the Tardis, next stop everywhere.
Basically, River’s appearance here comes after all the other ones that have ever been aired. Presumably, she earned her pardon after the crash of the Byzantium and is no longer imprisoned, allowing her to “make professor” and be part of this expedition. (Actually, I just read online somewhere that River is still in the authority’s custody in this story, but I don’t see any indication of that in the story – in fact she starts to say she’s with a particular university). River recognizes the Doctor in his 10th incarnation but doesn’t know that he couldn’t have experienced the crash of the Byzantium yet, so she isn’t fully aware of what order his incarnations come in. A lot of other stories suggest that the Doctor and River basically meet in “reverse” order, but the fact that she doesn’t seem to know what order his regenerations come in would seem to indicate that their encounters are a bit more random. Indeed, her appearance in the mini-episode Last Night would seem to confirm this.
Last Word: Dramatic. Funny. Frightening. Mysterious. Tragic. Triumphant. It’s hard to pick. But more than any other episode of the Russell T. Davies-era of Doctor Who, this one serves as a pilot of sorts to what’s to come when Steven Moffat takes the reins a year later.